Hurricane Willa batters Mexico, sparking floods, outages

MAZATLAN, Mexico (Reuters) - Hurricane Willa slammed into Mexico’s Pacific coast late on Tuesday, raking it with winds of 120 mph (195 kph) that brought power outages, buffeted buildings, and dumped torrential rain on tourist resorts where thousands of people had moved to safety.

Whipping palm trees, bending power lines and causing floods, the center of Willa struck the coast near the town of Isla del Bosque in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, where many coastal areas had been evacuated before the storm hit.

Willa, a Category 3 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale was one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit Mexico from the Pacific in recent years. It was due to dissipate fast as it moved inland, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

“It was really strong,” said Cecilia Crespo, a spokeswoman for police in Escuinapa, a seaside town near to where the storm plowed inland. “It knocked down trees, lamps, poles, walls,” she added by telephone. “There’s no electricity.”

The storm drove into Mexico about 50 miles (80 km) south of Mazatlan, a major city and tourist resort in Sinaloa. Willa had reached rare Category 5 status on Monday with winds near 160 mph (260 kph) before it began to lose power.

Willa weakened as it moved inland but was still blowing winds of 115 mph (185 kph) more than an hour after it struck the coast and began advancing toward the state of Durango.

Speaking by telephone, Jose Garcia, another resident of the hardest-hit area, said he had hunkered down with others in an Escuinapa hotel waiting for the storm to pass, listening to it rattle buildings as it drove onwards.

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“People were very alarmed,” the 60-year-old said.

The storm did not strike hard in Mazatlan’s historic city center, which was nearly deserted ahead of its arrival.

“My house is made of sheet metal, wood and cardboard, and I’m scared it will fall on top of me,” said Rosa Maria Carrillo, 36, at a city shelter with her five children, aged 8 to 15.

Several other tourist getaways in the state of Nayarit, as well as the beach resort of Puerto Vallarta in Jalisco state, were close to Willa’s path, which was forecast to bring a life-threatening storm surge of ocean water, wind and rainfall.

Up to 18 inches (45 cm) of rainfall could pummel parts of the storm zone, the Miami-based hurricane center said.

The flood risk was compounded by rains caused by Vicente, a storm that dissipated early on Tuesday, having drenched parts of Jalisco, Colima, Michoacan and Guerrero states.

Nayarit’s government said it would continue to suspend classes across 10 municipalities on Wednesday.

Even buildings up to 500 meters (1,640 feet) distant from the coastline could lose power and suffer physical damage, Mexico’s National Meteorological Service said.

Reporting by David Alire Garcia, Dave Graham and Brendan O’Brien; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Sandra Maler and Clarence Fernandez